It is no secret that the Catholic Church is getting browner, this is true worldwide, and it is certainly the case in the United States. What is less well known are the demographic and sociological processes that are driving this. Sure, we all know that the growing Latino population is swelling the ranks, but there is more involved. Still, you can see from the GSS data presented above that while in the 1970s Catholicism in the United States was mostly white and Western European—and Eastern Europeans added another 17%–So white people made up 85% of Catholics. Fast forward to the 21st century and only 55% of Catholics are Western European, and fewer than 10% are Eastern European. Latin Americans are now the second largest ethnicity, and if you put together Asians and African Americans they are as numerous as Eastern Europeans.
Another thing driving Catholic ethnic proportions are differential rates of defection. The Catholic church is losing BIG over time, and defection rates have increased from 16% in the 1970s to 29% in the 21st century. Most of that increase in defection is coming among Western Europeans, Eastern Europeans, and African Americans. Child molestation scandals combined with ingrained sexism, homophobia, and political conservatism in the church hierarchy are driving out white and African American Catholics who resent the politicization of the Church. While rates of defection have increased a tad for Latin Americans and Asians, they are much more stable. And, check out those HUGE losses among African Americans! As the American church hierarchy has abandoned their commitment to social justice, backed amoral libertarian nutjobs like Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, and etc, and closed inner city Catholic schools at a disproportionate rate, African Americans have voted with their feet—nearly half of African Americans who grew up Catholic leave the Church.
Nobody in their right mind would convert to Catholicism, I mean, what kind of wackjob is gonna jump on that Medieval sinking ship? Most Catholic converts do so for marriage reasons, and overall conversion rates appear to be in decline, and are under 8%. While African American Catholics are more likely to be converts than in other groups, they’re losing far more than they are gaining from switching.
What is interesting is that as white people become less and less common in the Catholic Church, they may be challenged about their move away from the social justice orientation that used to prevail in American Catholicism. How are Latin American Catholics going to deal with the Santorums, Ryans, and Steve Kings? Now, with a Latin American Pope, I wonder if perhaps they may deny communion to someone like Steve King, whose open hatred of Catholic immigrants can barely be contained. White Catholics are opposed to immigration reform, yet immigration is what is keeping the Catholic Church afloat! Above you can also see how ethnicity drives support for reducing inequality—White Catholics don’t want the government to reduce inequality, while brown Catholics are more supportive. It’ll be an interesting next few decades. My prediction? The Vatican will indeed reduce its focus on sexuality issues and begin to support social justice—leading to increased participation among Latin Americans and widespread defection of Europeans who don’t want to share communion with skinny Mexican drug mules with cantaloupe calves.